Youth justice system “under severe strain” as pandemic exacerbates existing issues

The Alliance for Youth Justice (AYJ) has warned of the “exceptional impacts” of the COVID-19 pandemic on the youth justice system in a new report released today (Wednesday 21 July).

21/07/21

Youth justice system “under severe strain” as pandemic exacerbates existing issues

The report finds that the pandemic has “devastatingly exacerbated” issues faced by children in the youth justice system and calls for “urgent” and “coordinated” action to prevent more children being drawn into the criminal justice system in the future due to increased vulnerabilities and social problems.

The review, produced alongside researchers at Manchester Centre for Youth Studies, part of Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), finds that heightened levels of safeguarding concerns because of the pandemic are of “major concern” for children involved with the youth justice system.

Analysing current literature, the review identifies a consistent theme of a lack of information, understanding and focus on children during the pandemic, and that the Government has often failed to distinguish between its approach to adults and children in their policy responses.

It also established that a clear ‘digital divide’ has emerged between those who have access to digital technologies and those who do not, which has been brought under a microscope as digital models of communication and service provision have been adapted throughout the various stages of the youth justice system.

Researchers warn that there is a need for proper evaluation of the temporary measures implemented during COVID-19 across the youth justice system – and wider children’s services – before they become widespread and permanently embedded.

Authors said the system is currently “struggling to cope” with the numbers of children in the system. They found that from decisions to arrest, divert or prosecute children in the community, to remand and sentencing, there was a clear need to work to reduce the number of children passing through the system.

The report was unclear on the full long-term impacts of delays on the courts and broader criminal justice system as a result of the pandemic but warned that to be fully understood they need to be seen in the context of a system already under severe strain.

Authors also found that harms experienced by children in custody, and the impacts on their longer-term health and wellbeing, must be fully assessed and supported effectively. They say most children in penal establishments have been subjected to awful conditions for months on end, deprived of education, visits and contact, and amounting to solitary confinement.

Pippa Goodfellow, Director of the Alliance for Youth Justice said coordinated action with significant investment was required to mitigate the negative consequences of the pandemic.

“Issues that are prevalent amongst children in the youth justice system have been significantly aggravated by COVID-19, with disadvantaged and marginalised communities suffering most. Children’s exposure to abuse, exploitation and violence have continued or increased, while the capacity of services has been severely impeded.

“The momentous impact of the pandemic continues to unfold, with vast implications for all systems and services supporting children, families and communities, and throughout the various stages of the youth justice system, which has been under severe strain.”

Professor Hannah Smithson, Director of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies at the Manchester Metropolitan University, and leader of the research team, said the review was the most comprehensive review of the literature to date in relation to the impact of COVID-19 on the youth justice system.

“The wider research project is making significant strides in drawing attention to the adaptations of working practices and service delivery across the youth justice system and the challenges it has faced.

“Most importantly, we are supporting children to tell their own stories. It is vitally important research that has the potential to influence youth justice policy and practice in a post-pandemic world.”

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